No matter how much your company believes it’s a meritocracy, there are almost certainly bigger barriers to the top for some employees than others—many of which happen due to bias.
Bias can come in infamously damaging forms (like racial bias) or lesser-known variations that are sometimes leveraged in business (such as the halo effect). But they can all cause trouble in the workplace. Smart companies nowadays see the value and necessity of bias training and other precautions to get ahead of the problem.
But cognitive biases are sneaky. You might think you know how they manifest and be on the lookout for obvious offenses—all without realizing that you are a subconscious offender.
Gender bias is one of the easiest unconscious biases people fall for because it’s built into cultural and social consciousness all across the world.
What is gender bias?
Most people can give a simple definition of gender bias: discrimination or unfair advantages awarded based on gender. Like many kinds of bias, it’s linked to objectification and stereotyping.
Women most commonly experience gender bias in the workplace through gender pay gaps. But it’s there, too, in watching male counterparts zip up the corporate ladder while women struggle to get a foothold in middle management—not to mention experiences with sexual harassment.
It’s also a problem for men who are pressured to behave according to boy’s club rules or discouraged from pursuing benefits like paternity leave.
Further complicating things, gender bias manifests in the subconscious. Nowadays, you usually won’t hear a manager say, “We promoted Jack because he’s a man and Jill is a woman.” That kind of thing still happens—it’s just justified differently.
Maybe Jack seems like a more dedicated employee because he puts in longer hours, takes on bigger projects, and networks with clients by going out for drinks after work. Meanwhile, Jill has great KPI results, but is given less responsibility by her manager, and can’t commit to after-hours drinks because she’s a single mom with two kids.
Employers need to understand how gender bias manifests and damages work environments. Here are a few questions to raise your awareness and reduce your gender bias.
Do you balk at work-life balance?
In the heat of busy seasons, in particular, it’s common to feel irritated when other people leave the office before you or seem to have a lighter workload. Even if you know your female coworker has permission to use flexible working hours or must sign off at a certain time for childcare, you might still find yourself thinking it’s unfair.
You might also evaluate said coworker based on that frustration, rather than their actual output.
As a fundamental rule, it’s important to apply critical thinking and emotional intelligence at work. They will help you keep a big-picture view and remove gender-based comparisons from the equation.
Do you distribute work (and expectations) equally?
One way unconscious gender bias manifests for women in the workplace is through assignments and responsibilities—or lack thereof.
Work assignments still tend to be delegated in a very gender-biased way. Women are asked to greet visitors, serve tea or coffee, plan the logistics of parties and retreats, handle invoicing, and take meeting minutes far more often than men. Meanwhile, men are given meaningful leadership responsibilities to set strategy and vision, as well as physical tasks like changing the water cooler tank.
Under these conditions, it’s not hard to guess who inevitably has a more impressive portfolio when a promotion opens up.
Simply put, if you tend to think of men as more flexible and logical and women as more organized and emotional, you’re suffering from gender bias.
Who do you rely on to “remember stuff”?
Similar to the delegation of responsibilities, women are often relied on as memory banks for details men can’t be bothered with.
Consciously or subconsciously, you may leave it up to Jill to keep track of dates and times for upcoming meetings and events, make confirmation calls, and plan the logistics of office parties. But if Jill isn’t your personal secretary—if she’s say, a sales rep or graphic designer—there’s a flaw in the way you see her.
At the same time, delegating organizational tasks exclusively to women denies men opportunities to grow these skills and become more well-rounded.
Allowing your gender bias to become a crutch denies skill growth for everyone.
Do you make assumptions about private life responsibilities?
Women still face a pretty big obstacle when job hunting: The assumption that they’ll eventually either quit or take extended leave for childcare—and that men won’t.
Dedication to embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) isn’t just about overcoming the challenges women face. We also need to rethink the gender roles we assign to men. Not every woman wants children, and not every man wants to leave the childrearing to Mom.
Assumptions about what men or women will do at certain life milestones usually take the form of microaggressions like these:
- Hearing only that a woman is expecting and jumping right to “How much time are you taking off?” or “When’s your last day?”
- Responding to a male coworker’s need to pick up his kids with any variation of “Doesn’t your wife do that?”
- Asking a female coworker (or worse, a job candidate) if or when she plans to have kids or why she doesn’t have any yet
All of these comments—no matter how innocently you mean them—are rooted in gender bias and chip away at psychological safety in the workplace.
The Future of Gender Bias in the Workplace
It’s nice to think that we’ve left behind 1950s gender roles. But gender bias takes a long time to remove from culture, and we’ve got a lot further to go.
Forbes reported in 2020: “The Human Development Report calculates a gender inequality index, which is a measure of women’s empowerment in health, education, and economic status. The index shows that progress has been slowing in recent years, and even regressing in some countries. This type of slowdown would be normal if we were approaching gender parity, but we’re nowhere close.”
Two years later, the Gender Equality Index 2022, which measures progress in gender equality just within the EU, reported only a 0.6 increase since the year before.
Accelerating progress starts with awareness on the individual level. Everyone, no matter their gender identity, must be vigilant about what is heard and said in the workplace. Looking up from your desk to speak out or committing yourself to reduce biases in the workplace will help both the people affected and your company culture grow into a healthy, safe space for all.